Main image: members of the UNSW Team featured in the Advanced Visualisation Lab (AVIE. From left to right: Fletcher Koder, Runzhe Hu and Vithya Ramanan Mathisuthanan.

The team has successfully passed Phase 1 of the Over the Dusty Moon Challenge and have been invited to the in-person competition at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado, USA taking place in June 2022. The competition will be against 5 other teams from across the world including competitors from Germany and Canada.

The main challenge of the competition is to build a transport system to move lunar soil otherwise known as regolith on the moon which is an important resource for construction and mineral processing.

The UNSW team which designed the Phase 1 entry for the competition are 3rd year students: Runzhe Hu, Fletcher Koder and Patrick Kennedy (Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) in Mining Engineering); Vithya Ramanan Mathisuthanan (Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) in Mining Engineering and Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) in Civil Engineering) alongside 2nd year PhD candidate Nicholas Barnett (Off-Earth Mining Engineering).

The Challenge is hosted by Colorado School of Mines and Lockheed Martin, with the UNSW team is also supported by Redwood Technology and Roobuck. During the competition, a simulant known as CSM-LHT-1 will be used as a substitute for the lunar highland regolith.

“The competition is important in space mining operations as regolith has various metals and can produce oxygen which would be viable on Earth” Hu says.

“NASA and other space agencies are trying to have processing facilities on the Moon, and they need to deliver the resources on the Moon to the processing plant” Barnett says. “The resources on the Moon can also be used to make a lunar base to put man on the Moon and then continue exploration on Mars”.

The recovery of regolith on the Moon is more economical than recovering it on Earth and the competition is a means to find innovative means to transport regolith in dusty lunar conditions.

In Phase 1, teams were required to design a system that could deliver an equivalent of 1,000kg of regolith per day to a Molten Regolith Electrolysis (MRE) Plant from a regolith hopper. The regolith must be moved 10 meters horizontally and 3 meters vertically.

The UNSW team will be building a Lunar Cable-Car Conveyance System (LCCS) which consists of multiple capsules on a cable which will be filled with regolith and then travel along the cable car to the MRE. The LCCS was inspired by the team’s upbringing and chosen due to its simplicity.

“I grew up in Singapore and one of the main modes of travel from the main island to other islands is the cable car, so we looked at the challenge and thought ‘what’s a great way of transporting regolith horizontally and vertically without touching the ground to avoid complications’ and looked into our past and found the answer” Mathisuthanan says.

“It is a tried-and-true form of transport as it has been used for decades and they are very stable, safe, reliable and energy efficient. So, it seemed like a clear contender for our design” Koder says. “Our design is simply just the moving the regolith through these capsules on this cable car system”.

There are several challenges when transporting regolith on the moon due to the extreme conditions, most notably high dust levels, reduced gravity, and the temperature.

“Dust is very abrasive to our equipment so one of the major challenges is to ensure that the dust does not get into any of our systems as it is detrimental to it, so we have limited the number of moving parts in our system” Mathisuthanan says. “Another is gravity, as it might be advantageous to us as it could reduce the weight of the system and reduce the amount of power needed to propel it”.

“We also need to maintain stay alive temperatures to keep the electrical components warm enough to operate within extreme temperature changes on the moon” Barnett says.

“Albert Einstein once said, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication” Koder says. “Hence, we have made a simple design and with the way we have made it, the dust should ideally not get into any of the moving parts”.

In preparation for the second stage, the project will be supported by academics and students from across UNSW with specialisations in aeronautical engineering, mechanical engineering, mechatronic engineering, and other schools to build the prototype. The project has been backed by and created in the MIoT and IPIN laboratory led by Dr. Binghao Li.

At the Phase 2 finals, each team will be provided 1 hour to setup, operate and pack down their prototypes, with the aim to transfer as much regolith up to 100kg within the hour. Each team will also be judged on economic viability, power usage, dust impact on the system, and how it would actually work in the lunar environment.

The team entered the competition during their second undergraduate year when the topic was introduced by Nicholas Barnett during their Engineering Design 2000 project where they had to design a system for an extreme environment, after which they submitted to the competition on 31st November 2021.

“The fact that they are second year students and are competing against postgrads and others with more sophisticated space mining backgrounds shows how brilliant their design is” Barnett states.

The entire team worked on the project whist being in different countries and had to communicate remotely during phase one of the project.

Dr Binghao Li states “Runzhe was in China, Ramanan in Sydney, Fletcher was in the United States and Patrick was in Newcastle, so communication was really challenging especially with the time differences because we had to schedule meetings early in the morning or late at night”.

However, the team pulled through despite time differences, having exams and perhaps as an advantage, the project always had at least one member working on it. All the members ventured into this project due to their passion for exploring beyond Earth.

“The future of mining is most likely going to be deep space mining as we want to keep humanity evolving and reduce the harvesting of raw materials on Earth, so it’s a hopeful future” Koder says.

Fletcher Koder originally studied Chemical engineering and switched to Mining Engineering at the beginning of his second year. “I've definitely become a lot more passionate about space mining and I do believe that it is it is the future of the mining industry because I feel that within my lifetime, there would definitely be an offer at a space resource facility”.

“My childhood dream was to be an Astronaut and I guess this project allows me to combine my passions of space and mining” Mathisuthanan says. “It’s a perfect opportunity for me”.

“The reason I chose to do mining engineering is because I think that mining is an industry that will never end because we need resources to build houses and cities” Runzhe Hu says. “Actually, from this program, I see a bigger scope of the future like we're not just focusing on the resources on Earth and are looking at space for resources”

Nicholas Barnett completed Mechanical Space engineering as his undergraduate degree but ended up in the oil and gas industry securing 16 years of experience. “When off-Earth mining was being offered at UNSW, I decided to come back when the COVID pandemic occurred to focus on studying rather than working”.

The team plans to also do some sightseeing in Colorado if time permits such as the Pikes Peak Mountain, one of the highest peaks in North America.